Fantasia Festival Review: The Dark and the Wicked

Year: 2020
Runtime: 95 Minutes
Director/Writer: Bryan Bertino
Stars: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Michael Zagst, Tom Nowicki, Ella Ballentine

By Harris Dang

Writer/director Bryan Bertino has led quite an interesting filmmaking career. He first started off with solely screenwriting work, which resulted in the script for his directorial debut “The Strangers” (2008). The film was originally planned for director Mark Romanek to direct but after budgetary issues, Bertino took over the reins. Despite the lack of directorial experience, The Strangers was both a financial success that earned rave reviews retrospectively; enough to earn a sequel in 2018 called “The Strangers: Prey at Night”. Bertino then switched gears from going from the “home invasion” genre to the “found-footage” genre for “Mockingbird” (2014). Then he ventured into the “creature feature” genre with“The Monster” (2016) which earned some of the best reviews of his career. Now in 2020, Bertino goes into uncharted waters with his latest horror effort, “The Dark and the Wicked”. Bertino had made the film in his own farm and it promises something more psychological; exploring other levels of fear he has not worked on in his prior work.
The film stars Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. as Louise and Michael; siblings whom have just heard that their father is fatally ill. The two put their lives on hold and visit his farm to be with their father for his final hours as well as their mother for emotional support. While the time spent together brings up closeted skeletons in their past; the two begin to realize that their estrangement towards their parents seem to be the least of their problems as the farm shows signs of something sinister. The synopsis is intentionally brief to keep from spoiling what horrors are to be seen but as for the efforts in the film itself, Bertino has once again made another startling horror effort with “The Dark and the Wicked”. The storytelling is essentially more about the emotional arcs the characters experience rather than an actual plot but it never wears the viewer down or come across as tedious because Bertino peppers his script with enough emotional truth for it to be compelling, believable and scary.
There are plenty of scenes that will satiate horror gorehounds which involve the usual lashings of blood, well-timed jump scares from the supposedly supernatural and feral.”
The film’s blending of psychological drama and horror tropes are well-done in conveying the characterizations and their flaws. For example, the fear in the mother character (played brilliantly by Juliet Oliver-Touchstone) represents something internal and long-gestating; shown in a disturbing manner that goes past self-mutilation. Another example involves the actions (or lack thereof) and consequences of filial duty which veers towards possible hallucinatory visions and supporting characters (memorably played by Lynn Andrews as the nurse and Bertino alum Ella Ballentine as the troubled victim); which provides palpable credibility in showing how people cater themselves with denial over their responsibilities to family.
With proper themes like death, grief, filial duty, family estrangement, religion, atheism, festering rage and resentment; they all sound like the perfect topics for Bertino to work on for his horror effort to work. But it could also imply that the film could be reaching for heights that could possibly be misconstrued as pretentious. Thankfully, Bertino never forgets that he is making a horror film and his prowess in creating tension and suspense has not wavered.
“The Dark and the Wicked” is a great horror effort from Bertino; with great performances and a fantastic melding of human drama and haunting scares.”
There are plenty of scenes that will satiate horror gorehounds which involve the usual lashings of blood, well-timed jump scares from the supposedly supernatural and feral and exceedingly graphic injury detail from the use of knives and knitting needles, to name a few. Bertino’s patient direction slowly builds the suspense and his timing (thanks to support from the moody cinematography by Tristan Nyby and the intricate editing from William Boodell and Zachary Weintraub) just when to time the moment of impact correctly. Also, the characterizations are strong enough for the audience to care and they add to the impact of the setpieces.
Credit should also go to the cast; especially Ireland and Abbott Jr. whom display remarkable clarity in opening up their characters’ turmoils and vulnerabilities. Extra praise should go to Xander Berkeley, who plays an unnamed priest whose presence introduces another side to the horrific proceedings that can be seen as almost fantastical. His role could have easily veered towards farce like Rod Steiger’s similar role in “The Amityville Horror” (1978) but Berkeley dials it back just enough to be both capably menacing and fun to watch. As for its flaws, the film can be seen as a tedious exercise in misery and some audiences may be watching horror stories like this to aim for a more fun approach. In addition to that, the climactic punch of the storyline does feel like a cheap ploy to provide a jump scare for the audience that dilutes the power of the drama. If only Bertino had swapped the resolutions of the characters around and aimed for a more cerebral conclusion, the film would have been better served. Overall, “The Dark and the Wicked” is a great horror effort from Bertino; with great performances and a fantastic melding of human drama and haunting scares that provides ample proof that he is improving as a filmmaker. Recommended.
“The Dark and the Wicked” had its World Premiere at Fantasia Film Festival, which showed from 20th August to 2nd September.
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